Why the Fed Is Compelled to Lie to Congress

by: Barry Ritholtz

I had an interesting conversation Wednesday about Ben Bernanke's testimony with a person upset over the obvious understatements, spin, and happy talk -- even as the Fed Chair quite soberly discussed the US slowdown.

If the Fed were to come clean about the present circumstances, it would cause a market panic. That's why we get this very gradual shift in assessments, all designed to be somewhat reassuring as it slowly feeds measured dollops of reality into the marketplace.

Wednesday's dovish congressional testimony from Bernanke (and in Vice Chair Don Kohn's speech the day prior) will be continued Thursday. It is as it has always been and always will be.

Why? Imagine if the Fed Chair told the unvarnished truth: The Dow would see a 1,000 point intra-day drop, and that won't help the Fed steer the ship.

Imagine if the Fed fessed up to what we know to be true, and what we suspect the future might bring:

Opening statement of the FOMC Chair, Senate Testimony
February 27, 2008:

Senators, we find ourselves in a very challenging situation.

Following the dot com implosion, my predecessor at the Fed slashed rates to a generational low of 1%; the FOMC then kept rates at 1% for over a year.

While that re-inflated the economy, it also set off a shock wave of inflation unseen since the 1970s. Houses doubled in price, Oil is up 5 fold, food stuffs have tripled, and the dollar has collapsed. Gold is at multi-decade highs.

As always happens, these price increases in hard assets attracted speculators, and that made the situation -- especially in housing -- much more complex. Even worse, the housing speculation contributed to a debacle, while these other assets are actually accelerating in price.

Further, as was the political fashion, deregulation and a lack of interest in the oversight role of the banking system allowed an unprecedented expansion of credit, including to the least credit worthy consumers. Additionally, derivative selling -- at is heart, an unregulated form of insurance -- expanded from a few billion dollars to $46 trillion dollars.

The credit crunch is unprecedented, far worse than the S&L collapse and Long Term Capital Management -- combined.

All of these factors have combined to create our present situation. Inflation remains very elevated and worse, quite sticky. Growth continues to slide towards zero -- and possibly beyond.

Like many others, our forecasts in these areas have been wrong. We expected the slowing economy to moderate inflation, and so far, that has not happened. Demand for commodities from China and India is keeping prices elevated. The weakening dollar -- now at levels last seen in the 1960s -- is forcing all dollar denominated commodities higher. I don't necessarily believe in "Peak Oil," but the fact that the Saudis are one of the world's biggest investors in alternative energy research might tell you something.

The last time a slowing economy failed to moderate prices was the 1970s. Even as the economy slid into recession, we had major spikes in the prices of energy, food, clothing.

What is particularly worrisome to me is that as we have slashed interest rates 225 basis points, consumer loans -- mortgages and revolving credit -- have actually moved higher.

Gentleman, this is a major problem. And our internal, non-public projections forecast it is only going to get worse for the next 4 quarters . . .

Now you understand why the Fed fibs. If they told the full and unvarnished truth, it would be beyond fugly.

Sources:
Semiannual Monetary Policy Report
to the Congress by Chairman Ben S. Bernanke
Before the Committee on Financial Services, U.S. House of Representatives
Federal Reserve, February 27, 2008

The U.S. Economy and Monetary Policy
Vice Chairman Donald L. Kohn at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Cameron School of Business' Business Week Program, Wilmington, North Carolina
Federal Reserve, February 26, 2008